Photo by JamesCalder on Flickr.

Any DC driver has seen them: handwritten Emergency No Parking signs posted on the side of the street. They signify Pepco work, moving zones, and much more.

I moved last weekend, and got my first opportunity to try to use these signs. I searched the Web, and found this page from DDOT telling you how to get a permit for the signs. So, I headed down to DCRA with my completed form.

The DCRA rep informed me that I could only get three parking spaces taken out of service, even though the movers would be bringing two trucks (one for a local move, and one for my stuff that was in storage) at the same time.

Oh, and by the way, since my old apartment has meters out front, I had to pay for the meters. No problem, I had written down the numbers. No, said DCRA, actually I had to go to the Reeves Center for an invoice from DDOT. When I got to the Reeves Center, they informed me that the one person who does this was out of the office, and that DDOT suggests you leave several days for that one person to get around to providing the invoice. By the way, all they are doing is telling DCRA how much the meters cost; not even collecting the money. Yet for some reason, it requires a separate person and several days.

Those of you who have ever used Emergency No Parking signs are thinking right now, “Wait a minute. You don’t go to DCRA and DDOT. You just get them at the police station.” That’s right: contrary to what the Web site says, when I called 311, they informed me that you can just get the signs at the police station. I headed over, and within 15 minutes had signs which, according to the officer on duty, I could place as far apart as I wanted.

Of course, when a car parked in the middle of my zone on Saturday morning, about 10 minutes before the truck arrived, nobody from MPD came to ticket or tow the car. Not after one hour, not after five hours. There’s one very lucky Delaware driver owning a red Neon, who should have been towed, but instead just created a few headaches for my movers. (This was the part of the process that surprised me the least.)

Whether issued by DDOT or MPD, these signs are ridiculous for so many other reasons. Here are just a few:

  • They don’t tell you clearly where not to park. Each sign just says “Emergency No Parking.” It doesn’t say whether it’s no parking to the right, the left, or what. If I see two signs, it’s in between (I now know), but visitors or new residents have no way to tell. And what if there are multiple signs (3 or 4 on a block)? Is it between all the signs? Between the pairs, when there are 4? It’s a sign—they are, by definition, surfaces on which you can explain rules. Let’s do that.
  • They’re hard to see. If you’re parking at night, it’s easy to miss these signs.
  • The hours are unclear. 9 am 7/11/08 to 5 pm 7/12/08… does that mean 9 am to 5 pm both days, or no parking all night?
  • There’s no contact information. The signs should say why there is no parking, and whom to call for questions, whether the police or the person requesting the signs.
  • They have to go up 72 hours before the no parking restriction, but it’s entirely possible people park and then don’t move their cars for over 72 hours, since street cleaning is only weekly (and not at all in the winter). (In my case, I put them up during street cleaning time, so nobody could have legally parked before they were there.)
  • My moving is not an emergency. Neither are most of the other uses. Why can’t they say “Temporary No Parking”? (Thanks to commenter Michael for reminding me of this one.)
  • Different DC agencies don’t even agree on who is supposed to issue them, and the DC Web site is totally wrong!

You should not be able to park your car legally, leave it there until the next street cleaning, and find it towed or ticketed in the meantime. And if an area is marked no parking, it should be absolutely clear where.

The DCRA permit process seems fine, but you should be able to go to DCRA and get the signs without having to tromp all over the District to collect forms hither and thither. That’s the purpose of the one stop permit office. And DCRA should reserve a large enough space to meet the need.

Meanwhile, here’s a tip: completely disregard any regulatory information found on the DC government Web site. It’s probably totally wrong.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.